Mark Galeotti Mark Galeotti

Putin steps back from the Ukrainian brink

After weeks building up forces in Crimea and close to the Ukrainian border — over 100,000, all told — Moscow is now saying it plans to pull most of them back to barracks. Is this a climb-down, mission accomplished, or mind games?

Of course, we’ll have to see what actually happens. We’ve seen footage of tanks being loaded back onto railway cars and soldiers taking down tents, but until we have independent verification of substantial movements, we need to be cautious.

After all, in 2008, Russian troops deployed to the Caucasus for major military exercises were just packing up when they were promptly ordered back to launch their five-day invasion of Georgia. That said, the timing was then driven by the way hot-headed Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili succumbed to needling by Russian-backed rebels, launching an attack on secessionist South Ossetia that gave Moscow the excuse it was looking for.

Is this a Russian climb-down? It would be easy to see it as such

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is well aware of this danger and has said he plans to give Vladimir Putin no such excuses. He also has something like ten times as many soldiers under arms as the Georgians had: if the Russians did launch the major offensive some analysts were predicting, while they would likely win, they would take serious losses.

The undeclared war in Ukraine’s Donbas region isn’t ending. The rebellious ‘people’s republics’ will continue their campaign of skirmishes along the front line, armed and supported by Russian troops. Some of the recent deployments with probably stay in place, notably a paratrooper unit in Crimea, as part of the steady militarisation of the region.

Nonetheless, the immediate crisis looks to be scaling down, with Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu presenting this as nothing more than the end of exercises and snap inspections, even though these had actually been conjured to justify the concentration of forces in the first place.

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